Tr. by Sean Bye
There’s an off-color German joke that started circulating sometime after World War II. A man gets on the train in Dresden, going east. The conductor announces each stop along the way:
“Now arriving in Bautzen.”
“Now arriving in Görlitz.”
After crossing the border into Poland, the announcements take on a slightly different form:
“Now arriving in Jelenia Góra, or as it was formerly known, Jannowitz.”
“Now arriving in Wałbrzych, or as it was formerly known, Waldenburg.”
Finally, the train arrives in Wrocław (formerly Breslau) and the man gets off. The friends he is visiting have come to meet him on the platform. He walks over to them and they exchange greetings.
“Hello,” the German man says, “good day to you. Or as it was formerly known, Heil Hitler!”
There are a number of ways to interpret the joke, not least of them as a means for the joke teller to indulge in some disgruntled nationalism and Nazi nostalgia; indeed this aspect probably flavors all other interpretation. Still, the joke calls attention to the odd way that history emerges in everyday life. The man riding the train is reminded that until 1945 the territory he is passing through was part of Germany, and that after World War II it became part of Poland. That’s the anodyne way of putting it. Another way would be to say that the territory the train is passing through became Polish after a worldwide cataclysm that killed tens of millions of people and displaced millions more. For the man, the only apparent reminder of this fact is a banal conductor’s announcement in a quiet train car. No wonder that upon meeting his friends he, like a repressed neurotic on Freud’s couch, blurts out two words now expressly evocative of that carnage.
The carnage of the Second World War is only one of the misfortunes visited upon the small town of Miedzianka, formerly Kupferberg, whose story is the focus of Filip Springer’s excellent History of a Disappearance, translated from Polish by Sean Gaspar Bye. Springer begins his chronicle by tracing the origins of the town and its surrounds in Lower Silesia back to the late 14th century. The 16th century saw an increase in mining operations; the 17th brought the devastations of the Plague and the Thirty Years’ War — first came the Croats, fighting on behalf of the Catholic Habsburgs, later the Swedes, fighting for the Protestant Union; in the 18th century, Prussia under Frederick the Great seizes Lower Silesia from the Habsburgs; at the start of the 19th century come the Napoleonic Wars. History for Joyce was a nightmare from which Stephen Daedalus couldn’t wake up; for Orwell it was a boot stamping on a human face forever. Springer’s history is simply a “beast,” sometimes slumbering, but more often fiercely awake.
Springer’s account begins in earnest in the late 19th century. Kupferberg is an idyllic small town, famous as “the smallest town in Germany,” surrounded by the beautiful Giant and Falcon Mountains. Kupferberger Gold, the local beer, is renowned throughout the region. Georg Franzky, son of the brewer, studies under the naturalist Paul Sintenis as a boy and later wins competitions as an amateur hunting enthusiast. The town has a baker, a barber, a butcher, a pharmacist. This era of the town’s history, the late 19th to early 20th century, sounds, in Springer’s telling, a bit like the shtetl scenes in Everything Is Illuminated — peaceful, pastoral, and all the more poignant because you know what’s coming.
First the Nazi’s arrive. The local Hitler Youth march through the town and publicly castigate the local priest. People start disappearing. Then, after the war, come the Soviets. Women begin killing themselves in towns across the Eastern Front, anticipating the arrival of Russian troops, their terror fueled by accounts (many exaggerated by Nazi propaganda, but not all) of the atrocities committed by those troops as they advance. In the popular imagination in the United States, World War II is still thought of as being fought mainly in Western Europe: Churchill and the Battle of Britain; Eisenhower and D-Day; U.S. paratroopers giving chocolate to Dutch children in A Bridge Too Far; James Coburn meeting the French Resistance in The Great Escape. As far as the Eastern Front is concerned, we hear about the siege of Leningrad, maybe about the Warsaw Uprising, but not so much about fascist resistance in Ukraine or Yugoslavian partisans under Tito. I grew up reading books about the sinking of the Bismarck by the HMS Hood, but I know nothing about the occupation of Hungary, for example. All this to say that while Poland during World War II is by no means the sole focus of Springer’s book, having his chapters devoted to the topic is a welcome step towards addressing the long imbalance favoring the Western Front.
After the war, the migrations begin. Not only of Germans out of Silesia, but also of Poles out of Eastern territories now belonging to Ukraine. Then there are those displaced internally, whether looking for work or fleeing the secret police. Barbara Wójcik is one of these, whose story is told along with others’ in the chapter “Westward, or the All the Deaths of Barbara Wójcik,” refugees who all, one way or another, end up in Kupferberg.
Or rather Miedzianka, as it is now called. Unlike the towns farther east, Miedzianka and other towns nearby are relatively free of war damage, but in the years that follow the war a new industry, while bringing a measure of prosperity to the town, will also spell its doom. The industry is, once again, mining — but this time, it’s uranium the miners are after. In their quest for more spoil, the miners, spurred on by Soviet demand for uranium, dig ever deeper, undermining the very foundations of the town. The miners start complaining of strange ailments, and meanwhile, across Miedzianka, cracks start appearing in walls, basements start caving in. The houses start “singing” as the land they sit on gives way; more and more are deemed uninhabitable.
People begin leaving; by the late ’60s only a few are left. Many of the town’s inhabitants move to nearby Jelenia Góra, where the town council has purchased apartments for them in a new development. In 1974, the brewery — a continual source of pride and stability in the town even into the communist era, under the direction of brewmaster Stefan Spiż — is shuttered, its tanks removed for use elsewhere. Much of the blame is placed on one woman, Irena Kamiénska-Siuta, who as a functionary in the local government helped arrange for the resettlement of its inhabitants. Kamiénska-Siuta was an outsider, a “Russian” (she came from the East) and a Party member; the townsfolk distrusted her from the start.
Springer, for his part, declines to name a culprit for the town’s disappearance; rather his narrative depicts the disappearance as something inevitable, the result of historical forces — the beast that has always hounded the town. It is as inevitable as the poor townsfolk’s suspicion of the German tourists who begin arriving in the ‘50s in search — so the local suspicion — of the valuables they left behind when they fled; as inevitable as their scapegoating of Kamiénska-Siuta. Of that attitude, Andrzej Piesiak, a Solidarity member jailed by the communist government and later a senator in post-communist Poland, tells Springer: “Those were uncomplicated times — if someone was in the government, they were evil. It was simple: you’re there, you’re Red, you’re an enemy. . . . Many years later I realized that some of them were different, that they weren’t as guilty as the rest, but you know, back then that made no difference to us. And thinking that way would have only done harm.”
History of a Disappearance deserves great praise for Springer’s narrative technique. With facts drawn from the historical record and interviews with locals, he summons an image of the lost town. The book could serve as a complement to Josef Winkler’s novel When the Time Comes — translated into English by Adrian West — with its similar evocation of a small town through successive generations; the books even share a recurrent cross motif. Springer forms a coherent narrative, but stops just short of asserting that narrative as objective truth. He cites evidence for historical events and quotes contradictory accounts by the people who lived through them. That they are contradictory doesn’t make the accounts false, for there is a reason for their being false; their falseness forms part of the narrative, just as the falsified record that appeared in local newspapers around Miedzianka in the ‘70s and ‘80s, while useless from an objective standpoint, reveals something about the authorities’ intentions.
While the communist-controlled newspapers in Poland were printing their version of the truth about Miedzianka, across the border, one newspaper was printing its own. In the early chapters about Paul Sintenis the naturalist and Georg Franzky the brewer’s son, there are footnotes that reference Dora Puschmann’s Chronik über Kupferberg. In the last pages, Springer writes of how Puschmann published her chronicle in the Schlesiche Bergwacht newspaper in the ‘80s. Of Puschmann’s account, Springer writes diplomatically, “This is not reading material to bring both sides together. It is full of bitterness and sorrow, and occasionally even rage, about what happened. Dora Puschmann writes, ‘only a German plow is worthy of this land,’ that in fact all the evil the Germans experienced after the war was due to ‘drunken Poles.’ . . . She makes persistent use of the phrase ‘our homeland’.” Puschmann’s chronicle, it would seem, has something of the sentiment behind the joke about the man on the train to Breslau. And yet, looking back at the chapters about Franzky and Kupferberger Gold, I wonder if the idyllic tone reflects Puschmann’s influence. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s a reminder that the idyllic can be made to serve an ideology. No narrative is without intentions.
As to his own intentions, Springer writes, in the epilogue — presumably written for the English-language edition, as it references events that happened after the book’s 2011 publication in Polish — “Since History of a Disappearance was first published, I’ve been asked dozens of times why I wrote it. I tell myself and those who ask that I did it so I could feel something when I stood in that meadow [in Miedzianka]. Because when I went there for the first time, I felt absolutely nothing. . . . And I don’t suppose it’s a good thing not to notice the disappearance of an entire town.” Of course, the book takes on a different resonance now. Europe is contending with Russian encroachment on another nation’s territory and a wave of migrants that rivals the post-World War II migration that forms a part of Miedzianka’s history. And in the United States, we’re seeing a spike in nationalist fervor with calls for a more secure border – a denial of any conception of identity as something porous or of the possibility of peaceful co-existence in favor of a zero-sum us vs. them mindset that ignores, among other things, the actual history of how the U.S. border came to be defined (“Now arriving in Texas, or as it was formerly known, Mexico”). Springer endeavored to find the truth, however elusive it might be, because not knowing — failing to notice — made him uncomfortable. As a statement of intention, this seems somewhat modest. In actuality, however, his endeavor is a powerful one. Because by striving to know the truth, we avoid falling victim to those who would distort it for their own ends.
Marshall Yarbrough is a writer and translator from German and assistant music editor at the Brooklyn Rail.